The Christmas poems of Robert Herrick, the seventeenth-century poet and Anglican vicar, show doctrinal understanding, emotional intensity, and artistic strength. All of Herrick’s poetry reveals a depth and breadth of perception not only of classical writers but also of the Bible and the later church fathers, especially Augustine, Ambrose, Bernard, and Aquinas. The images, phrases, and cadences of Scripture often leave their mark on his poems.
The subjects of the 272 poems in his collection called His Noble Numbers include God, the Incarnation, Christ’s suffering and death and resurrection, prayer, temptation, sin, pardon, judgment. But the advent of Christ is particularly in evidence. Beneath the title on the title page of the 1647 edition are these words: “Wherein (amongst other things) he sings the Birth of his Christ: and sighs for his Savior’s suffering on the Cross.”
Herrick’s poetry on the Incarnation unmistakably reveals that God’s becoming man was a miraculous, unprecedented act. In his epigram “Christ’s Birth,” for example, the poet writes these words:
One Birth our Savior had, the like none yet
Was, or will be a second like to it.
He captures the reason for this miraculous coming in the quatrain “Christ’s Incarnation”:
Christ took our nature on Him, not that he
‘Bove all things lov’d it, for the puritie
No, but he drest Him with our human Trim,
Because our flesh stood most in need of Him.
When we read Herrick’s Christmas poems carefully, we recognize a simplicity or a childlike tone (not to be confused with childishness or naivete), but we also discover an intricacy that can easily be missed. I will concentrate on his beautiful, intricately wrought poem of praise called “A Christmas Caroll, song to the King in the Presence at White-Hall.”
The chorus begins the carol, setting the joyful mood and announcing the purpose of the celebration:
What sweeter music can we bring,
Than a Caroll, for to sing
The Birth of this our heavenly King,
Awake the voice! Awake the string!
Heart, ears, and eye, and every thing
Awake! the while the active finger
Runs division with the singer.
Through a carefully controlled prosody, which lends an appropriate formality to the choral song, Herrick urges that the birth of the Heavenly King be celebrated with every human faculty and with the stringed instrument.
After the opening chorus there are four stanzas and a closing movement. The numbers before the stanzas designate different solo parts; sections without numbers are for the chorus. The first soloist demands the immediate banishment of night in order that honor may be given to an extraordinary new day:
1Dark and dull night, flie hence away,
And give the honour to this Day
That sees December turn’d to May.
This new day is a transforming one: darkness and dullness are to be replaced by renewal and vibrancy, for December, the end of the year and of life, is turned into May, the springtime and rebirth of nature and of life. But the second soloist has difficulty in understanding this unusual transformation and asks:
2If we may ask the reason, say;
The Why, and wherefore all things here
Seems like the Spring-time of the yeere.
If the second soloist lacks comprehension, so also does the third. Using a beautiful pastoral image, the third soloist inquires:
3Why do’s the chilling Winters morne
Smile, like a field beset with corne?
Or smell, like to a Meade new-shorne,
Thus, on a sudden?
The response is immediate and direct in the fourth solo:
4Come and see
The cause, why things thus frequent be:
’Tis He is borne, whose quickening Birth
Gives life and luster, public Mirth,
To Heaven, and the under-Earth.
The reason why there is a miraculous renewal is the “quickening”—the life-giving—birth of the Christ child. “Life,” “luster,” and “mirth” supplant darkness, night, and death. And this birth illuminates “Heaven” and “the under-Earth”; indeed, it illuminates the whole world.
The closing movement of the carol shows the reaction of people to this miraculous birth:
We see Him come, and know him ours,
Who, with His Sun-Shine, and His showers,
Turnes all the patient ground to flowers.
1The Darling of the World is come,
And fit it is, we find a roome
To welcome Him. 2The nobler part
Of all the house here, is the heart.
Which we will give Him; and bequeath
This Hollie, and this Ivie wreath,
To do Him honour; who’s our King,
And Lord of all this Revelling.
In the choral song, mankind sees the newborn Christ turning earth into an Edenic world. But Herrick carefully shows that Christ came primarily to renew and revitalize not nature but man. In view of this, Roger Rollins accurately perceives “deliberate irony” in the first soloist’s desire to find a room to welcome the Christ child. He is also right in suggesting that the irony is resolved in terms of the biblical metaphor: “The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the heart is the sancta sanctorum of that temple.” The heart, as the second chorus suggests, is the “nobler part of all the house here.” In the heart of man Christ should find a welcome. Because this is true, the chorus presents itself to the new King, “bequeaths” the traditional plants of Christmas (holly) and of royalty or nobility (ivy), and declares him its King as well as Lord of the celebration.
The poem, then, shows exultant celebration of the Saviour’s birth, queries about its miraculous results, firm assertion of the transforming and quickening power of the Incarnation, and willing surrender of hearts to the new King. If through it Herrick helps us to recognize this Advent season as an occasion for deep gratitude and joyful praise, he has helped us to commemorate it appropriately. E.
Beatrice Batson is professor of English at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.
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